CLEVELAND — Brad Stevens appears to be evolving into a special NBA coach. He is young, sharp, bright-eyed, exceedingly polite, patient, and purposeful. He’s a man with vision for his Green Team, which is now in its seventh year of chasing an 18th title.
Stevens withstood last season, his first directing the Celtics straight upon departing Butler University, and survived the mind-twisting 27-win torture test without zipping across Staniford Street to book an extended stay at the Lindemann Mental Health Center. And Sunday night, with a first career loss logged on his playoff record, he remained unflustered, focused, even optimistic at times, after getting a postseason-debut butt-kicking (113-100) administered here by the cruise-control Cavaliers.
“I am not overstating this,” said Stevens, his hands clasped together for most of the postgame news conference, as if he were testifying at the podium before a Senate subcommittee, “but credit [the Cavaliers]. They are really good.’’
In fact, though no coach in the world this side of maybe church league soccer would ever admit such a thing, the Cavs are too good for the team Stevens directs as of April 2015. In a couple of years, maybe three, perhaps that’s a different story. But as of now, in Round One of the 2015 Eastern Conference playoffs, he is a man with a roster that, let’s be honest, still remains spotty and in transition from the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen “Those Were The Days’’ tour.
The Brad Stevens First Postseason Celtics hung with the Cavs for the first 12 minutes, enough to eke out a 31-27 lead, then began to disassemble in a second quarter that LeBron James & Co. dominated by a convincing 35-23. The half ended with a buzzer-beating Kyrie Irving 3-point kill shot. It was as if the uber-talented young guard said, “Uh, gents, add this to your halftime things-we-gotta-correct list.’’
Lost somewhat in Cleveland’s afternoon fireworks display was the fact that James twice in a 33-second span drove the lane and tucked in the two scores that put his team in front to stay. With 6:16 to go, he tore into the middle and finished with a layup to break a 40-40 tie. With 5:43 remaining, after Brandon Bass hit a pair of free throws, James again barreled down Broadway and banked in a 6-foot turnaround jumper.
The Cavs were back on top, 44-42, and the Celtics would never scratch back to even. Game 1 was all but a wrap, and it took less than 19 minutes playing time.
When James had to own it, he owned it. He wanted the lane, gained it at full throttle, and there wasn’t a Celtic who could deny him the paint or thwart his will. No surprise. He is, as Stevens said a number of times during the week, the game’s best player, and best players, some not even named LeBron James, get it done.
Stevens doesn’t have those players yet; in fact, none of his starters reasonably could be expected to get more than backup minutes on the Cavs.
It was evident early on, said Stevens, that his Celtics were in for trouble, even when the scoreboard seemed to be telling a different story.
“I was watching the Bucks-Bulls [Friday] night, and it was 22-22 with four minutes left in the first,” noted Stevens. “My wife and I were sitting there having dinner and I said, ‘If it’s 22-22 at the four-minute mark in the first [vs. the Cavs], we are in trouble.’ And it was 22-22 at 3:19.
“We knew that we had not done a good job at that point, making it as difficult as we needed to for them to score.’’
One of the Celtics’ missing pieces, the one that could end up as the fatal missing link in this series, is the lack of a bona fide rim protector, a defensive behemoth (one of size or agility or both) who could at least make James think twice before taking it to the hole in that critical moment.
Even if he thinks twice, James might still get it done, but at least he might be made to feel the price. There was no toll for him in Game 1. When points were needed, James scored them, and then the rest of the cast, especially Kevin Love (19 points) and Irving (30 points) went about the pro forma execution over the final 29-30 minutes.
The other key points, Stevens stressed, were his club’s lack of offensive rebounds (only 7 to the Cavs’ 15) and the lopsided disparity in 3-point production. The Celtics’ bombers were 8 for 22, while the Cavs went 13 for 31. All of which worked out to a 39-24 scoring edge, a 15-point difference in a game the Cavs won by 13.
“Two huge, critical things,’’ noted Stevens. Bad on the glass. Thumped at long range. Wanted: skilled players.
Absent deep, wide-shouldered roster talent, Stevens is trying to succeed with an up-tempo attack, something he couldn’t get across to Rajon Rondo. The coach also preaches tenacious defense, also lost on Rondo, who was ultimately told to get lost. Late in the second half of the season, his Celtics won with pluck. They were 24-12 after the Super Bowl, in large part because of the trade acquisition of Isaiah Thomas in December and the buy-in that followed.
The speedy, darting Thomas is finally the piece Stevens can build around, but he’ll need more, either by Danny Ainge trades, draft picks, or the maturing likes of Marcus Smart.
“We’ve seen the kind of pace this team plays with,” said James. “When Isaiah Thomas comes into the game, the pace goes up even higher.”
Trouble is, once beyond the booster shot of Thomas, Stevens is hard-pressed to find enough substitution, rotations, or whatever sleight-of hand chicanery to cope with the Cavs’ Big Three of James, Love, and Irving. They finished with 69 points for the afternoon, 24 of those via 3-point shots. Boston’s five starters finished with 45 points, 9 from long range. Mercy.
On Monday, starting Celtics guard Avery Bradley (a meager 7 points across his 31:26), noted that he, like the rest of his teammates, will pick through the Game 1 tape. Learn from it and improve, Stevens told them before they left the building. Right now, it’s all the coach can ask, all he can hope.
“I know what I need to improve on,’’ said Bradley. “But I am still going to watch the film, so when I go in next time I can be better.’’
Stevens, meanwhile, knows the biggest improvement of all will come in the names of players yet to be known. For now, this is what he has and he’ll continue making his name by getting the most out of who’s here. Here in the end of his second season, he has finally scratched out a team identity. It takes time. Two years have made that painfully obvious.
“We had a couple of guys play really well tonight,’’ offered Stevens. “And we had a couple of guys who didn’t play quite as well. But that’s going to happen and, um, we have a lot of things to take from this game and there are some things we can do better, some things we did well that you’d like to keep doing.
“So we’ll watch the film and we’ll go from there.’’
Watch. Work. Wait. There really isn’t more that he can do.